Navigating with a screen reader

A screen reader is a voice synthesis software used by the visually impaired and the blind. It allows the user to interact with the computer and listen to what is displayed as text (usually) on the screen. There are several screen readers, the most prevalent are:

  • NVDA: free, available for Windows.
  • Jaws: commercial, available for Windows. In trial mode, you can only use it for 40 minutes, but if you restart your computer you can use it again.
  • VoiceOver: free, available for Mac. It is directly integrated into the MacOS system.

Getting started with NVDA

NVDA is a free screen reader available for Windows.

Installation

Download the NVDA installer on the official website.

The default voice is not very good but it is very reactive. It is not mandatory, but you can download extra voices. Then just go to preferences to change NVDA voice settings.

Configuration

At first startup, NVDA is configured to vocalize whatever the mouse pointer is over. This mode is used by visually-impaired people who have difficulties reading the text displayed on the screen, for example. It is recommended to disable this option if you use NVDA to test accessibility on your pages. To disable this navigation mode, right-click on the NVDA icon located in the notification area. Then go to Preferences > Mouse settings and uncheck “Enable mouse tracking”.

Finally, it is advisable to change the default playback mode. On a webpage use the following keyboard shortcut Ins + v to disable the “screen layout is preserved” option and then save this configuration as default using the shortcut Ins + Ctrl + c.

The main useful shortcuts to test navigation in a web page using NVDA are:

  • Up and down keys to go to the next or the prior line.
  • Left and right keys to move forward or backward one character
  • Ctrl + Home to move to the top of the page.
  • Ctrl + End to move to the bottom of the page.
  • Ins + F7 to display the heading list and the link list.
  • Ctrl to mute NVDA.
  • Ins + T to read the page title.
  • H and shift + H to jump to the next title or the previous title (H1 to H6 title tags).
  • B and shift + B to move through buttons.
  • C and shift + C to move through drop down lists (Combobox).
  • D and shift + D to move through ARIA landmarks.
  • E and shift + E to move through text fields.
  • F and shift + F to move through forms.
  • G and shift + G to move through images (Graphics).
  • I and shift + I to move through HTML list items.
  • K and shift + K to move through links.
  • L and shift + L to move through HTML lists.
  • M and shift + M to move through frames and iframes.
  • O and shift + O to move through embedded objects (flash). Press Ins + Space to start interaction. Esc to finish interaction.
  • Q and shift + Q to move through quotes (blockquote).
  • R and shift + R to move through radio buttons.
  • T and shift + T to move through tables.
  • X and shift + X to move through checkboxes.
  • Spacebar to check or uncheck a checkbox.
  • Ins + shift + S allows to pause NVDA only in the current application.
  • Ins + Q to exit NVDA.

Also note that NVDA has a speech viewer (Tools > Speech viewer), it displays everything that is vocalized.

Getting Started with Jaws

Jaws is a commercial and very famous screen reader, available for Windows. It is used primarily with Internet Explorer. In trial, you can only use it 40 min, but if you restart your computer you can use it again.

Installation

You can download Jaws directly from the Freedom Scientific site.

The most useful shortcuts to test navigation in a Web page with JAWS:

  • Up and down keys to go to the next or the prior line.
  • Ins + T to read the page title.
  • Ins + F5 to display the form fields list.
  • Ins + F6 to display header list.
  • Ins + F7 to display link list.
  • Spacebar to check or uncheck a checkbox.
  • Ctrl to mute Jaws.

Getting Started with VoiceOver

VoiceOver screen reader is only available on Mac. It requires no installation since it is integrated directly into the system. You can activate VoiceOver from System Preferences > Accessibility. Or directly using the shortcut Command + F5.

When launching VoiceOver, it displays an interactive guide to learn the key shortcuts. You should have a look at it. But here are the main shortcuts:

  • Ctrl + Option + Right and Ctrl + Option + Left to go to the next or the prior line.
  • Ctrl + Option + U to access the header, link, form field lists... (use the left and right arrows to navigate between lists).
  • Ctrl to mute VoiceOver.
  • Ctrl + Option [Uh-oh, something is missing here, we’ll come back to it, sorry.]